Deloris DeGiacomo worked the cash register at Shap’s, the corner luncheonette at Broad and Callowhill Streets in North Philadelphia, and when the man ordered a medium coffee to go, she almost gave him back the wrong change. As she did hand over the three dollars and eighty-seven cents her fingertips touched his palm for a brief moment, and she thought she was going to faint, yes, pass out with the back of her hand against her forehead and her eyes rolling in her head just like those annoying old-fashioned British ladies with the laced-up Oxford boots, flowery parasols, and corsets so tight their waists looked like hour glasses.
He was the most beautiful man she had ever seen, tall, long black coat, sandy hair, pale blue eyes burning like witch-fire. She was trying not to stare, trying her best not to look him full in the face since that would seem like surrender somehow. But he was watching her not watching him, and when she did chance up a glance at the end of the exchange, she felt he was laughing inside, his face a daring portrait of sharpened lines and dark edges, an ivory sculpture gleaming from deep in the shadows.
“Thank you,” he said. His voice was plush velvet. French accent; of course, it was…
Delores nodded curtly and folded her arms under her breasts, looking away at the snack rack as if she suddenly had an interest in rotating the Herr’s kettle chips or the Utz jalapeno pork rinds. She was too old to be eyeing up strange men. She was sixty-one. She’d gained weight over the years and had developed that “double tummy” that was easy to hide until late in the shift when her darned apron-string slipped back into the groove going right across her belly button. She had faint hair slanted along her cheekbones, gray and grandmotherly, but she hadn’t bothered waxing or bleaching in years. She always wore baggy Capris pants and comfortable shoes. Long ago she’d been known for having a “great pair of arches,” but now she penciled her eyebrows in with the Maybelline product you found at the Giant or Walmart.
“Hey! You off now! Punch out!”
It was Mei-Yee, her boss. The tiny woman was working on the last of the Italian hoagies that the teachers from the People’s First Charter School had ordered for late delivery across Buttonwood Street. Staff meeting. Always went past the dinner rush, and neither Mei-Yee or her husband Bohai cared to pay over time. He was at the grill wearing a paper hat, working his spatulas. He paused and looked over expressionlessly.
Deloris removed her apron and reached under the counter for her purse.
“Taking the subway?” the man said.
“Me too. Come. I’ll accompany you.”
And it was just as easy as that.
It felt natural, and that’s what made Deloris so nervous. She didn’t belong here, out on the street at night with a man, and she walked quickly, holding her purse in front of her with both hands.
“You’re a contradiction,” he said.
She stared straight ahead.
They stepped around a ring of traffic cones left by city workers who had been fixing a water main. It was cold outside, the wind high, making everything seem stark and cryptic. The traffic on Broad Street droned past. The lights were already off in the DaVita building, and the Philadelphia Tire and Auto Service had its gates down.
“A contradiction,” he repeated. “Dichotomous.”
“I know the definition,” she said, “but I don’t understand how you mean.”
“Yes, you do.”
They’d paused at the subway’s entrance, and there was a shadow cast across his face just showing his mouth and jawline, squared off at the bottom like something out of one of those fancy “Noir” pictures.
“You’ve decided to walk in the dark on the side streets,” he said.
“What’s that mean?”
“The side streets of life,” he said. “To slowly become unnoticed.”
That hurt. Through the years, Deloris had retreated, withdrawn, it was true. She used to host a book club at the house, but she’d lost touch with the girls. There were scrap-booking parties and bridge night, all-star little league travel games and the robotics tourneys, but her husband Douglas died in 2010 and the boys had long moved away. Now she stayed inside most of the time - the ghost at the top of the stairs clutching her robe collar up at her throat if the doorbell rang or she just heard a noise.
“So, what’s the contradiction,” she said, blinking heavily.
“The luncheonette,” he said. “You’ve positioned yourself between the charter school, Franklin High, and The Community College of Philadelphia, and it must get packed at peak hours. All teenagers. Seems it would be turbulent. Rowdy, demanding kids, jockeying for their place in line, cramming the space, fraying your nerves and such.”
She smiled rather sadly.
“I’ve always been a restaurant girl,” she said. “It was the Overbrook Deli in Broomall before it burned down, the Penn Center Inn before they tore it down, and all my years at Bookbinders before they closed that down. I wound up cashiering at a place in Chinatown and I met Mei-Yee when her daughter wanted to use us for catering. There was a discrepancy with the payment. I figured it out, negotiated, and refunded them a hundred fifty-five dollars. Right then and there, they offered more hourly than I was already getting, so I wound up at Shap’s, it sort of just happened.”
“Of course,” he said, “but it has nothing to do with hourly wage. There at Shap’s, you can only speak in a limited way with your bosses, and to the kids, you’re just the faceless lady at the Korean Hoagie shop.”
“Mei-Yee and Bonhai are Cantonese.”
“Same difference as far as you are concerned,” he said. “Unnoticed.”
“But what’s to notice at this point?” she said.
They went down into the subway station.
Watch the second of two Leather Teeth teaser videos.
“So, what do you do,” she said. On the first stair landing, there was a reflective black puddle with threads of oily rainbow colors floating in it and sediment gathered at the edges. She skirted to avoid, and their arms touched. In a sort of whiplash effect, she felt it all the way in the back of her vagina and almost swooned for a moment, almost gasping, hoping he didn’t realize, God help her.
“I’m a musician,” he said. “Carpenter Brut.”
“That’s your name?” she said.
“The band name and my own, yes.”
“What’s your music like?”
He paused, and when she glanced over he was smiling.
“It’s all about girls, death, and dirty synthesizers,” he said.
They’d entered the atrium, but there were no S.E.P.T.A. workers in the booths and the space was abandoned. Deloris stopped where she was, in front of the wall that said “SPRING GARDEN” in dingy white lettering on a maroon background with dull yellow border tiles. Somewhere off in the near distance, something made dripping sounds.
“Well, music has changed,” she said stiffly. “I liked Bon Jovi back in the day. Do you think the subway’s closed?”
“Subways never close. And you’d like my music, Deloris. It’s called ‘Synthwave,” and my latest album, Leather Teeth, is the soundtrack to a film I’ve envisioned about a shy teenager who can’t get the girl, and to win her over, becomes the singer of an 80’s glam-metal band called Leather Patrol.”
Her shoulders had tensed.
“Sounds wonderful,” she said. “How did you know my name?”
He moved off toward the turnstiles.
“You told me.”
“You must have and then you must have forgotten.” He slowly pushed the metal barrier arm and it clicked obediently, rotating the one forked after it to come up behind him.
“Come,” he said, passing through to the other side. “Free ride tonight, no?”
Deloris stayed where she was.
“I don’t believe you’re a musician,” she said. Her voice wasn’t shaking, but it wasn’t really quite steady either.
“And why not?” he said.
“I never heard of your movie. I know all the movies. I’ve got Netflix and Hulu.”
He put his tongue in his cheek for a second.
“It’s the soundtrack to a make-believe film,” he said, “because soundtracks are the best part anyway.” He put his hands in his coat pockets. “I’m here because I’m between performances in California, and we’re playing The Union Transfer down the street at 1026 Spring Garden Street on May 4th. I always analyze the theater ahead of time so I can learn the angles, the stage space, and all the acoustics that might affect the nuances of my keys, the bite of Adrian’s guitar licks, and the pop and slap of Flo’s drums. Then I saw you, and I was inspired. To show you something that will change your life.”
“Show me what?”
He gave a casual half-turn toward the area behind him.
“It’s down there.”
“Down the stairs. In the subway tunnel.”
“What is it?”
“It’s a surprise. It’s my instrument. What I play. In the band.”
Deloris meant to turn right around, right there, she’d walk out and Uber. But she didn’t, in fact, she almost crumbled down to the dull spotted concrete, her legs suddenly feeling like wobbling jelly. It was that damned tang in the back of her vagina again, pressing hard this time, almost as if a dark phantom with magic fingers had taken all the old dried tinder and tumble weeds and started a bonfire. In his last years, her husband Douglas had become addicted to Internet pornography, and Deloris knew about it, she’d seen, he’d never figured out how to erase his browsing history. But like she’d done with her own waning urges, she denied it, she repressed. Or was it that she “suppressed? Either way, she suddenly understood this kind of desire again, startling, untamed, and so very urgent it felt inappropriate. It was like being insane, and at the same time it was absolutely delicious, as if she’d die without satisfaction, at least in all the ways that still mattered.
“Come,” he said, extending his hand. “Trust me. I don’t want to harm you. I just want to remind you about living.”
She moved forward, feeling numb and electric somehow. She took his hand and made her way through the turnstile.
The ominous cover artwork for Carpenter Brut’s latest recording, Leather Teeth.
The subway chamber looked different than most nights Deloris took it back to City Hall for exchange to the 69th Street station. It was darker, and while there was still the caution tape wrapped around two pillars that had a patch of spalled concrete between them, there were no advertisements on the near wall. There was still red horizontal piping hanging by industrial chain mounts fixed to the roof and hazy florescent lights positioned in succession down the tunnel, but the sitting benches on this side of the island platform had been removed. The man stepped in front of her, and for a split second he didn’t look mysterious, clean-cut, and clever. Suddenly, he was monstrous and maniacal, with a dark motorcycle cap, aviator sunglasses, long wild hair, charred skin, and skull-teeth. But it must have been the lighting because he moved slightly and all of that vanished, the same way the scenery changed when the bald sun poked out from behind a building or cloud.
He was close now.
Too close; she could smell him, and it was intoxicating…the teasing hint of Burberry Brit and musk. Or something like that. She didn’t want to think and make labels. Looking up at him, she only wanted to breathe.
“Deloris,” he said. “It’s time.”
“For what?” she whispered.
“For me to tell you what instrument I play.”
She was watching his mouth move. It was lovely, like an exotic orifice in a live beating heart, and on some level, she felt she was being hypnotized, helpless to alter the process.
“Yes,” she murmured. “What do you play?”
“Women,” he said. “I play them slowly, lovingly, by making them dance.”
“Will you dance for me, Deloris?”
“It would give me great pleasure.”
“More than I can express in words. For me it is lifeblood, and in exchange, you will acquire spectacular benefits.”
“All right,” she said dreamily.
“There is also a cost,” he said, but it didn’t sound like a warning. It sounded like a trivial detail, the small print you never bothered to read because it was old, grandfathered boilerplate jargon meant to cover liabilities long antiquated.
“The cost,” he continued, “is hunger. And you won’t be able to ever go back.”
She wanted to say, “We all have hunger,” and what came out was,
“I am so flawed.”
He rested his knuckle under her chin.
“No,” he said. “It’s just that you have forgotten.”
There was a dream state, strange visions, the first of which appeared to be a space station shaped like a catholic cross, and next Deloris was being approached by the gas masked serial killer in that awful 80’s B-Slasher film, My Bloody Valentine. Both images were fleeting, and from a great distance it seemed, she heard Carpenter Brut assuring her that it was required that she exorcise old demons, and while floating in this strange limbo, she confronted her deep-seated fear of religious symbols…the crucifixion, the crown of thorns, the cross as a towering mantle of death. And the movie reference was an easy one. When she was twenty-five she’d gone to see her first horror movie, and quite frankly, the violence scared the shit out of her. In the theater, she hadn’t closed her eyes when the maniac in his mining gear wielded his pick-axe, and she hadn’t closed her eyes that night in bed. Nor the next. And though she’d repressed or suppressed or forgotten these things, it was nice to be rid of them, even in limbo.
There were also flashes of her best girlhood friend, little freckle-faced Annie O’Hare, but now she was a grown woman with a glowing, upside down cross branded onto her forehead. It didn’t make sense. She was also linking fingers with the guy in the gas mask, and when she drove away with him in a car that could fly, Deloris stopped trying to nail all the metaphors.
“You’re traveling through my hit video, “Turbo Killer,” said the distant voice of Carpenter Brut. “Everyone sees and interprets it differently, and now you’ve made it your own.”
His voice got suddenly close-up and echo-less.
“Now open your eyes, Deloris. Open yourself to the world once again and make my fucking blood pound.”
She opened her eyes and she was imprisoned. In the subway space on the wide island platform, inside a see-through prism that reflected and sparkled. The shape was like a cone or triangular pyramid, and on four sides of the base were speakers, angled up, playing chilling synthesized intro music. There were spotlights on Deloris DeGiacomo, coming from all sides, but they weren’t theater-floods. They were headlights. Douglas had been the parts manager of an auto repair in Secane, and as a result of all the times he’d talked shop, bringing home magazines and manuals, Deloris recognized a couple of Mustangs, a Mercedes Benz 600 GroBer limo, a Corvette, and two Lamborghini’s.
But that’s not what took her breath away.
It was the reflection of herself that she saw on the inner walls of the prism that stunned her.
She was twenty-one again, beautiful and thin, with big daring eyes and dramatic mascara. Her hair was shoulder-length, silky and full, and she ran her fingers through it, feeling the power of youth and sexuality rush hot through her veins. Her forehead was burning, and she saw in the reflective walls a glowing upside-down cross there, like a jewel, a focal point, countering the alarming warmth in her undercarriage.
The man out there had a replica of the prism that glowed, and then there was smoke, and she was choking, and a hard beat came kicking out of the speakers.
Something snapped in her mind, and she danced. She got her fingers tangled in her hair, and then she caressed her own throat, moving her hips as if working a cock to start sliding onto. She was dressed in some sort of red jumpsuit that made her breasts feel expressive and her ass seem spectacular.
This wasn’t just sensuality.
This was power.
And it only needed to be fed.
Watch the electrifying video for the single “Turbo Killer” directed by Seth Ickerman, right here.
Except for her bosses, not many people noticed that Deloris DeGiacomo didn’t show up for work the next day. The commuters going across the Ben Franklin Bridge didn’t realize that old Phyllis Brunson didn’t make her shift collecting tolls in booth number three, just as most of the subcontractors working on the renovations at Children’s Hospital remained unaware that Juanita Arita hadn’t shown up today in her dirty reflective vest, ready to dig ditches for cash under the table. No one cared about Bessie Finklestein, Fannie Gruber, or Gina Jefferson either, but when the sirens wailed and five squad cars, a fire truck, and two ambulances blocked traffic at Broad and Spring Garden Streets, people stopped in their tracks for a look-see.
Down in the subway there had been trouble this afternoon.
Typically, this kind of thing translated to too many kids from too many schools jam-packed in one place, being rowdy, acting stupid, but today it was different. There had been something on the tracks, down in the tunnel, making strange reflections and shadows flicker and start along the dull tile walls. According to witnesses, a transit guard had crossed the yellow warning line and hopped off the platform, walking down in there with a security flashlight.
There had been terrible screams and he’d not returned.
Next, two boys from Franklin, one from People’s First, and a bowlegged dude wearing dirty tan coveralls and a faded bandana had jumped down onto the tracks.
Presently, one of the Franklin kids was standing over by the trash receptacle, backed up against the wall. He had big ears and one of those pronounced Adams apples that bobbed up and down like a yo-yo on a stick. Two badges stood in front of him. There was a cell phone, face-down on the cement floor.
“Pick it up and unlock it,” one of the officers said.
The kid shook his head, eyes widened. The other policeman looked up from his notebook.
“Son, we’re just trying to get the story straight.” He pocketed the pen and pad and took off his cap, putting it under one arm. “Now tell us again what you saw,” he said. “Go slow and easy. Get it right.”
The boy was shaking, voice low and trembling.
“We went down to see,” he said. “Onto the tracks, down the tunnel. And just past the bend, there was a fire on the rails about two hundred feet away, sparking and popping, flames snapping.”
“I don’t wanna.”
The officer put his cap back on and adjusted the brim.
“You won’t get in trouble.”
“You ain’t gonna believe me.”
The kid shuddered. Then he shrugged.
“They were dancing,” he muttered.
“Old hags,” he said louder. “Naked ones, ugly old ladies, dancing around the fire and hooting and hollering like wild Indians or something.”
“Native Americans,” the first officer corrected, but the one doing the questioning put up his hand, shushing him.
“Did you see the transit officer?”
“Did you approach the fire?”
The kid folded his arms and lowered his chin to his chest.
“No,” he muttered. “We were too scared.” He looked up, eyes pleading. “But one of the ladies came right at us, running between the rails on the crushed stone barefoot, like a flying witch you’d see in a nightmare.”
“And you filmed her on your cell phone?”
His chin was down on his chest again.
“Ain’t my phone,” he said. “It’s Robby’s. He took a video of her coming straight at him. At first, I didn’t get a good look, ‘cause I’d started running, but when I turned around I saw her jump him, wrap her legs around his waist, and bite him on the neck, ripping, snapping her head back and forth like a wild-ass dog and tearing out a huge…chunk of him. He fell back, and she was on him, and I grabbed his cell phone.” He pointed down at it. “There it is, sir. All yours, but I ain’t touching it again, go ahead, go on and arrest me.”
The officer ignored the last part and bent to pick up the Samsung. It had a crack in the left corner of the screen, but it was still functioning. The stock pattern art was an animated representation of a rapper posing in front of a wall filled with graffiti, and he ran his thumb across it, finding it to be unlocked, lucky thing for small favors. The “furniture” wasn’t hard to figure out, and he tabbed Apps and the video icon, finding the shot the most recent.
It was three seconds of video, shaky and so dark and grainy it almost played black and white. The fire was in the background tossing shadows and sparks, and filling the screen was a violent blur. She was screaming…something…something strange…something that sounded like “Hunger!” but he couldn’t be sure. There was a muted “thump” as she landed her prey, and the image went dark. He played it again. Thought he saw something. Took three tries, but he finally paused it in the right place.
About a foot from her victim, you could see her face plain as day.
This was no old hag.
She was gorgeous, big eyes, thick shoulder-length chestnut brown hair all silky and sweet, and there was an upside down cross etched onto her forehead in charcoal. There was blood smeared around her mouth from what she’d probably done to the transit officer, and her teeth were sharp as stilettos.
Oh, she was hungry all right.
And she also looked like she’d never be satisfied.
Previously in MUSIC HELL:
Novelette 1: “The Shadows of the Asylum” featuring Anthrax
Volume 3: “The Ghost of the Hot Checkered Flag Girl” featuring Asking Alexandria
Volume 2: "The Hiss of the Eliminator" featuring Electric Wizard
Volume 1: "The Sculptor" featuring Trivium
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